Feminists of a certain age may recall debates about changing sexist language, and the ways feminists were once mocked for insisting on replacing sex-specific terms such as policeman with police officer, fireman with firefighter, stewardess with flight attendant and the so-called generic pronouns he and him with he or she, him or her or they and their. When I tell you that students in my Cultural Studies class last fall asked why Althusser only wrote about men, it’s easy to think those battles have been won. But only about half of the 50 U.S. states have changed their official government documents to use gender-neutral language.
The fact that today’s young people do not understand the generic use of man is just one indicator of the power of language. It matters which words we use to name and describe our world; language both reflects and shapes the way we see the world and our place in it. As a feminist scholar of media and women’s health and sexuality issues, I’ve become increasingly mindful of how labels can be inclusive or exclusive. Anyone who cares about public health usually tries to use the most inclusive labels possible. That’s why blood banks ask if you’ve had sex with men who have sex with men, for example, instead of asking if you’re gay.
Much of my published research deals with media representations of menstruation, so it caught my eye last month when a prominent women’s studies professor posted the following remark on a very active women’s studies mailing list:
There is something a bit problematic going on in menstruation politics. It seems we are required, for sake of politeness to male-bodied transgenders, to pretend that men menstruate too.
She then quoted a paragraph from a book review that referred to radical menstruation and used the term menstruators rather than women or women who menstruate. (Full disclosure: I recognized immediately that the book had to be New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation by my good friend Chris Bobel, a brilliant ethnographic study of feminist activism around menstruation.)
I cite this example without naming the professor or the list because I am neither interested in calling out an individual nor shaming a group. I cite it because I want to talk about why it is important to write of menstruators, not merely a matter of politeness to transmen. (It should go without saying that politeness to transmen is also important.)
Menstruation exists at the crossroads of sex and gender, as Chris wrote in New Blood. It is a biological function, but like every other biological function its meanings are cultural, and the biology cannot be separated from the culture. The activists Chris interviewed emphasized two important biological facts often overlooked in our cultural interpretations of menstruation:
- Not all women menstruate.
- Not only women menstruate.
Some women don’t menstruate because of diseases, cancers, surgeries, pregnancy (although they may still bleed) or menopause. Other women don’t menstruate because they don’t have functioning uteruses, fallopian tubes or vaginas; maybe they were born that way or maybe they are transwomen. And yes, there are some people who don’t identify as women who do menstruate. Some of them are transmen. Some of them are intersex. Some may have fully functioning uteruses, ovaries and vaginas but may identify as genderqueer, transgender, third gender or something else entirely. They are menstruators, but they are not women.
Calling them menstruators is just like changing other biased language. It helps us tell the truth about our lives, and challenge both gender essentialism and biological determinism. It reminds us that our bodies do not determine our identities, and that we are so much more than merely bodies. Some of us are people who happen to menstruate, some of the time. Using menstruators instead of women also helps make vital health information available to everyone who needs it—not just women.
In Washington, the state where I live, the legislature just unanimously approved a bill that is the fifth and final installment of a multi-year effort to replace male-dominated language from the state code with gender-neutral language. Under the new code, penmanship will become handwriting, freshmen will be first-year students and watchmen will become security guards.
But they still cannot find a gender-neutral term for manhole cover. In a world where we can find a gender-neutral name for men who menstruate, they’re just not trying hard enough.